What is it about waterfalls that we find so endlessly fascinating? Is it their raw power, giving us perspective on our own minimal significance in the world? Is it science (studies suggest the negative ions abundant in waterfalls increase serotonin levels)? Is it simply their aesthetic beauty, creating a sense of peace as we sit spellbound in their presence?
Regardless of the reasons why, there are few things that can simultaneously invigorate and relax us like watching waterfalls. The best waterfalls in the world all have one thing in common: Visiting them seems to improve our mental, emotional and physical well-being, providing an excuse to exercise, improved respiration, a chance to relax, and a deeper appreciation for our time here on Earth.
These remarkable natural wonders can be found in nearly country on the planet. But some are arguably more impressive than others, and worthy of bucket list inclusion. Here are our picks for the 10 best waterfalls in the world:
BRAZIL & ARGENTINA: IGUAZU FALLS
Located on the border dividing the Argentine province of Misiones from the Brazilian state of Paraná, Iguazu Falls is the largest system of waterfalls in the world. It’s taller than Niagara Falls (269 feet) and 3,000 feet wider than Victoria Falls, with a majestic beauty that can only be described as jaw-dropping. Local legend holds that a deity planned to marry a beauty who fled with her mortal lover in a canoe, leading the jealous god to slice the river and create waterfalls that would doom their fate. Regardless of its true origins, Iguazu’s remarkable velocity and size make it a bucket list item for many travelers.
GUYANA: KAIETEUR FALLS
Angel Falls is much taller and Iguazu Falls is much wider. But this lesser-known gem located on the Potaro River in Kaieteur National Park earns respect as one of the world’s most powerful waterfalls, with an average flow rate of approximately 23,400 cubic feet per second. It’s also the world’s widest single drop falls, bringing water originating in the Pakaraima Mountains down to a dramatic 741-foot drop. Part of Guyana’s Amazon rainforest, the area is a burgeoning ecotourism hotspot filled with endemic wildlife species.
VENEZUELA: ANGEL FALLS
It’s hard to think of this Venezuelan wonder without remembering the emotional Pixar movie UP, in which elderly grouch Carl Fredericksen visits the awe-inspiring tepui (table top mountains) and waterfalls in order to realize a long-delayed dream after his beloved wife passes away. Locals refer to this majestic beauty as Kerepakupai Vena (“waterfall of the deepest place”). At 3,212 feet, with a plunge of 2,648 feet, this is the world’s highest uninterrupted waterfall, dropping over the edge of Auyantepui mountain in Canaima National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
ZAMBIA & ZIMBABWE: VICTORIA FALLS
Known among locals as Mosi-oa-Tunya (“the Smoke that Thunders”), this UNESCO World Heritage Site lies on the Zambezi River at the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. If your idea of the best waterfalls in the world is quantified by size and velocity, Victoria Falls is arguably the king of them all: At 5,604 feet wide and 354 high, with a flow rate of 38,430 cubic feet per second, it forms the largest sheet of falling water on the planet. With Zambia’s Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park ion one side and Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls National Park on the other, it’s no wonder this is #1 on many an African traveler’s must-see list.
CHINA & VIETNAM: BAN GIOC-DETIAN FALLS
If you’re one of those people for whom bigger is always better, these two waterfalls on the Quây Son River (which straddles the border between China and Vietnam) may not be of interest. But for those who appreciate natural beauty more than size, their picturesque setting makes them a must-see. Located around 170 miles north of Hanoi, the waterfalls are surrounded by dramatic karst landscape and separated by myriad rocks and trees to create a dramatic views even during the dry season. During the wet season, the sound of the water dropping down a 98-foot cliff is as thundering as the scenery is stunning.
ICELAND: GULLFOSS FALLS
One of many incredible Iceland waterfalls, Gullfoss (Icelandic for “Golden Falls”) is immensely popular with travelers as part of the famed Iceland’s Interior tour, which also includes Þingvellir and the geysers of Haukadalur. Located in the Hvíta River canyon, the UNESCO World Heritage Site isn’t nearly as tall as some of the other waterfalls on this list. It’s more renowned for its beauty (including a 3-step staircase with 36-foot and 69-foot drops, and a 105-foot plunge into a crevice) and its mystery: When you approach the falls, the obscured view of the edge almost makes it look like the river vanishes!
AUSTRALIA: JIM JIM FALLS
This plunge waterfall is part of Kakadu National Park (another UNESCO World Heritage Site) in Australia’s Northern Territory. Rainfall plays a huge role in any waterfall’s appearance, but rarely is the impact so dramatic Visit during the dry season and the falls– which descend from 850 feet above sea level via one huge drop into a plunge pool on Jim Jim Creek– may look like little more than a trickle. But during the wet season (December through March), this roaring wonder is incredible to behold. Unfortunately the roads are impossible to travel then, so you’ll need a scenic flight to get a photo.
U.S. & CANADA: NIAGARA FALLS
Although mass tourism and crass commercialization threatens to ruin the nature lover’s experience of this natural wonder, it’s difficult to argue with its inclusion on every list of the best waterfalls in the world. Located on the Niagara River, which drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario, it’s actually comprised of three separate falls: American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls on the U.S. side, and Horseshoe Falls (the most powerful waterfall in North America in terms of vertical height and flow rate) on the Canadian side. It may be a tourist trap, but it’s still a must-see!
CROATIA: PLITVICE WATERFALL
This gorgeous gem is part of Plitvice Lakes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose otherworldly beauty makes it one of Europe’s most beloved attractions. The park’s 16 lakes (a confluence of rivers on the dynamic karst landscape) are all interconnected– separated by natural dams of travertine created by the growth of algae, bacteria, and moss– and flow from one into the other. As a result the waters are renowned for their vivid colors, which range from sky blue and emerald green to grey and often change with the light. Avid nature photographers will want to spend a week here.
U.S.: YOSEMITE FALLS
Located in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, this grande dame of U.S. waterfalls is an iconic American landmark. Starting from a height of 2,425 feet, the waterfall tumbles down three tiered sections into Yosemite Valley. With its spectacular 1,430-foot plunge, Upper Yosemite Fall is tall enough to rank among the world’s 20 highest waterfalls. The Middle Cascades are comprised of five smaller plunges that drop 675 feet, but they’re relatively inaccessible and difficult to see. The base of Lower Yosemite Fall is the most commonly used viewpoint, offering close-ups of the final 320-foot drop into a plunge pool that feeds into the Merced River.